Fred White, Tombstone, Arizona’s first town marshal, was elected on January 6, 1880. In July, Wyatt Earp was appointed as a deputy sheriff for the county and two formed an alliance to protect the town, as well as a strong friendship. White quickly established himself as a likable and professional lawman and contrary to many depictions of him in western films, he was respected by Clanton’s Cowboy faction. In fact, he had arrested “Cowboy” members on a number of occasions, rarely having any problems when doing so. He got along particularly well with “Curly Bill” Brocius, often bantering and joking with the man. Overall, he was seen as an unbiased man, uninvolved in the politics of Tombstone.
But for White, he had a massive job on his hands, as the town of Tombstone, filled with rowdy miners and cowboys, was a lawless place, where violence was a common occurrence.
The night of October 27, 1880, was no exception, as several members of the “Cowboy” faction, liquored up and having fun, were finding sport in firing their six-guns recklessly in all directions on Allen Street.
At around 12:30 in the morning on October 28th, White responded to the sounds of gunshots, closely followed by Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp. He found Curly Bill Brocius and several other cowboys still shooting it up in an empty lot where the Birdcage Theatre now stands. Ordering the men to surrender their weapons, each of them gave up their guns voluntarily without incident until Curly Bill Brocius presented his six-gun to the marshal, barrel first. As White grasped the barrel of the gun the weapon discharged, shooting White in the groin. While no one knows exactly what happened, it is thought that the pistol’s hammer was probably “half-cocked” over a live round when White pulled it from Brocius’ hand.
Writhing in agony, White fell to the ground. An enraged Wyatt Earp then began to pistol-whip Brocius before arresting him and taking him to jail for the shooting. Morgan Earp, also on hand, helped to bring in the other men who had caused the excitement, charging them with violating city ordinances. Upon depositing Brocius in a cell, Wyatt swore out a complaint against Brocius for assault with intent to murder. Though this incident is often portrayed including the Clanton and McLaury brothers, the newspaper the next day does not support this.
In the meantime, Marshal White was made comfortable and looked to by a doctor, who expected him to make a recovery. But it was not to be.
When the new day dawned, the rowdy makers went before the judge, were fined for violating city ordinances, and released. Brocius; however, asked for a postponement until he could get a lawyer. Later he appeared with Judge Haynes of Tucson, as his counsel, and as a lynch mob was forming in the camp to hang Brocius for the shooting of the popular marshal, whose condition had worsened and looked as if he might die, Brocius was ordered to be taken to Tucson to be held in protective custody. As Wyatt Earp and George Collins headed to Tucson with Brocius in a buggy, they were escorted out of town by Virgil and Morgan Earp.
In the meantime, Marshal Fred White, who had been steadily declining, lost his battle on October 30th and died. He was buried at Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone.
Brocius was said to have terribly regretted the shooting of White, whom he apparently liked, and maintained that the shooting was an accident, a fact that was supported by testimony given by White before he died, as well as Wyatt Earp in Brocius’ trial.
Brocius was eventually acquitted of any wrong-doing, with Judge Nuegass commenting that the shooting was “Homocide by Misadventure” or, in other words, an accident.
Brocius was released from custody and despite Wyatt’s statement that helped him to be freed, Brocius could not forgive Wyatt for the pistol-whipping. This was just one more of the many incidents that increased the ever-mounting tension between the Earps and the Cowboy faction.
After the death of “Old Man” Newton Clanton in July 1881, Curly Bill became the leader of the Clanton Gang. After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October, Brocius attempted to kill Virgil Earp and succeeded in assassinating Morgan Earp. Brother Wyatt, looking for revenge for Morgan’s killing, reportedly caught up with Brocius on March 24, 1882, and killed him with a double shotgun blast to the chest.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.
See newspaper accounts of the event HERE!